Hideous Kinky
directed by Gillies MacKinnon
(Columbia Tristar, 1998)

Julia has a problem. Her daughter, Bea, wants to be normal.

Normally, that's not a problem. But Julia is a single mother living with Bea and Bea's younger sister, Lucy, in the slums of Marrakech, Morocco, with no visible means of support.

There's the occasional check from the girls' father in London and, on at least one occasion, a misdirected package. But all in all, Julia (Kate Winslet) is hardly prepared to offer Bea anything resembling a normal upbringing. To add to the difficulty, Julia's long-term -- and only, it would seem -- goal is to become a member of the sufi, a mystical Islamic sect that makes the Amish look like party animals.

One person's problem, however, is another person's entertainment, and Hideous Kinky -- which, by the way, is neither hideous nor kinky -- is entertaining in the extreme.

It offers crisp desert-dry cinematography and a look at North Africa, circa 1971, plus a haunting score full of native North African music and a voyeuristic peek inside the working-class culture of Morocco. In that sense, it's a kind of non-narrated travelogue, one that skips the tourist traps and goes full tilt for local color.

But Hideous Kinky provides plenty of dramatic tension as well, especially when Julia embarks on a relationship with a marketplace acrobat (Said Taghmaoui) who proves to be a marvelous surrogate father, but a questionable provider with a questionable past. Even more effective are Julia's nightmares about her daughters, which have a bad habit of coming true.

In the end, however, it's the school-age sisters who make Hideous Kinky work: Bella Riza as Bea and Carrie Mullan as Lucy. They're so natural together that it's easy to forget they're acting, a rare treat with child actors, all too many of whom get their start by mugging their way through sitcoms.

Riza and Mullan have the kind of chemistry that exists between siblings, especially siblings who must devote an inordinate amount of time to raising their parents. If there were an Oscar for out-acting the grownups in a film, Riza and Mullan would be candidates one and two.

Moreover, director Gillies MacKinnon has chosen to capture the girls in variety poses, some of which -- like Lucy trying to twist herself in a turban or the girls lying in bed playing the word association game that leads to the phrase "Hideous Kinky" -- are absolutely unforgettable.

It's that focus on character that makes Hideous Kinky work, even when the camera rests too long on Julia watching her daughters with a vague mixture of delight, envy and dread, or when the soundtrack gets momentarily overtaken by some early '70s pop anthem.

Ultimately, an open-ended film like Hideous Kinky has to leave some questions unanswered. For me, though, the only real question it left is this: How could Kate Winslet make such a big splash in Titanic but hardly a ripple with Hideous Kinky? Go figure.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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